Flint Congregation Donates Ritual Objects As It Downsizes

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Lori Lasday with the packed boxes of materials from Beth Israel synagogue.

A declining Jewish population in the Flint area has compelled its Congregation Beth Israel to downsize locale and activities, but religious commitment has motivated member initiatives to upsize its impact outside the area.

After five years of preparation, membership recently moved from a synagogue of 32,000 square feet, purposely designed in the 1970s for Calkins Road, to a temporary space of 1,800 square feet in a multi-use office structure on Miller Road.

In the process, members decided to give away Torahs, ritual objects, books, educational materials and art.

“We decided that given the demographics and the expenses involved, the building was much larger than we needed,” says Leonard Meizlish, congregation president, who remembers a time when participants included 400 larger families instead of the 100 smaller families who now belong.

“We sold the building earlier this year for $1.15 million to Charter School Property Development of Nevada, which is leasing it to STEM School of Flint.

“We hold a one-year lease subject to annual renewals for our temporary space, and we also are involved in exploring the possibility of sharing facilities with Temple Beth El, the local Reform congregation, or the Flint Jewish Federation.”

The first-floor suite occupied by Beth Israel is only two miles away from where the Conservative synagogue was in Flint Township. Furnishings from the former smaller chapel have been moved to the new facility for an appearance almost the same as the small chapel had years ago.

“We had a kosher commercial kitchen in the old building and used it for a Meals on Wheels program operated by the Flint Jewish Federation,” Meizlish says. “We also used the kitchen for activities in the synagogue and fundraising events planned by the Sisterhood.

IMG_1107“We don’t have a kitchen in the new building, but the Meals on Wheels program is still active. Federation moved it to Temple Beth El.”

For some 30 years, the synagogue and temple had a combined religious education program. Classes now are held at Temple Beth El; they used to be held at Beth Israel.

“The number of children is lower, but that reflects the demographics of the community,” says Meizlish, who counts the growing number of one-person households in the count of family memberships.

While placing many items in storage and selling educational inventory and kitchen equipment, volunteers contacted Metro Detroit Jewish educator Lori Lasday to help distribute other holdings.

Amid the sorting and according to Jewish tradition, plans were made to bury holy items no longer useable.

“We are people of the book and so the books have been especially important to me,” says Lasday, who volunteered for the packing of books and ritual objects to be given away. She agreed to look after some 80 cartons of materials and is sending out notices detailing available items.

“I hope to reach Jewish educators, especially those in small Michigan communities. Although the materials are free, recipients will have to pay shipping costs or make arrangements to transport what interests them. I’d like to see some ritual objects reach people who grew up in the congregation and moved away.”

Lasday’s dedication to passing along educational resources relates to her current responsibilities, which include work as educational consultant and curriculum facilitator for Federation’s Jewish Education Department and curriculum writer and trainer for the PJ Library Parent Project.

Jewish educators will have access to books Sunday, Aug. 21, at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield. The texts will be shown at the Seminar for Educational Excellence in Detroit (SEED) sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Others can contact Lasday at iwillisrael@gmail.com, the email address for her new business of conducting tours of Israel.

Furniture from the former chapel was moved to the new space.

Two Torahs were given to University of Michigan Hillel in Ann Arbor.

“We were honored to receive the Torahs,” says Rabbi Lisa Stella, senior Jewish educator. “At Hillel, we often have between two and four different services happening simultaneously in order to accommodate the variety of religious practices of more than 6,000 Jewish students and community members.

“On High Holidays, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox services are in multiple locations and, in the past, we have had to borrow Torahs to accommodate all of our services.

“This unique and generous donation will allow our Hillel to continue to ensure our pluralistic, vibrant services will be equipped with everything they need, including beautiful Torah scrolls. They will be used well!”

Meizlish, a member of Beth Israel for more than 50 years, feels a bit nostalgic at this time of change.

“The building we sold was the third building the congregation had,” Meizlish says. “I was part of the last two buildings, married in the second and watching my kids grow up while attending the third.

“Although it’s sad to give up a building, it became a question of survival. The money we made from the sale will keep us going for a while, and I believe the long-term gain is important.”

 By Suzanne Chessler | Contributing Writer

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